Poland and several other countries in central and eastern Europe are battling their latest surges of coronavirus cases and deaths while continuing to record much lower vaccination rates than in western Europe.
In Russia, more than 1,200 people with COVID-19 died every day for most of November and for several days in December, and the daily death toll remains over 1,100. Ukraine, which is recording hundreds of virus deaths a day, is emerging from its deadliest period of the pandemic.
Meanwhile, the mortality rate in Poland, while lower than it was in the spring, recently hit more than 500 deaths per day and still has not peaked. Intensive care units are full, and doctors report that more and more children require hospitalization, including some who went through COVID-19 without symptoms but then suffered strokes.
The situation has created a dilemma for Poland’s government, which has urged citizens to get vaccinated but clearly worries about alienating voters who oppose vaccine mandates or any restrictions on economic life.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki received his vaccine booster publicly last week and urged others to get their shots to protect older adults at Christmas. He noted that some family gatherings during the pandemic have “ended tragically, ended with the departure of our grandfathers, grandmothers.”
To promote vaccines, Health Minister Adam Niedzielski pointed out Monday that of the 1,085 people under age 44 who died with COVID-19 so far this year in Poland, only three per cent were fully vaccinated. “This black statistic could be different thanks to vaccinations,” he said.
With a health system already stretched to its limits, Poland’s government announced Tuesday that it is requiring doctors, other medical personnel, teachers and uniformed workers like police officers, members of the military and firefighters to be vaccinated by March 1.
Critics of the right-wing government denounced the step as too little, too late, while a far-right party, Confederation, slammed it as discriminating against unvaccinated Poles.
The resistance to vaccines in eastern Europe is rooted in distrust of pharmaceutical companies and government authorities, while disinformation also appears to be playing a role.
With 54 per cent of Poles fully vaccinated, the country has a higher coronavirus inoculation rate than some nearby countries. Ukraine’s vaccination rate is 27 per cent, and in Russia, where domestically developed vaccines like Sputnik V are on offer, it is about 41 per cent. Bulgaria, which like Poland belongs to the European Union, has a vaccination rate of 26 per cent, the lowest in the bloc.
The discovery of the omicron variant last month has fuelled fears in Poland, where experts believe the variant is likely already circulating though no cases have been confirmed. Many critical questions about omicron remain unanswered, including whether the virus causes milder or more severe illness and how much it might evade immunity from past COVID-19 illness or vaccines.
The WHO, which is set to provide a live update on the new variant later Wednesday morning, said in an update posted online that omicron has to date been reported in 57 countries around the world.
-From The Associated Press and CBC News, last updated at 7:45 a.m. ET
What’s happening across Canada
What’s happening around the world
As of early Wednesday morning, more than 267.2 million cases of COVID-19 had been reported worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University, which maintains an online database of global cases. The reported global death toll stood at more than 5.2 million.
In the Americas, people in the U.S. are lining up for booster doses of vaccines at a record pace, spurred by concerns about the newly detected omicron variant.
Brazil will require that unvaccinated travellers entering the country go on a five-day quarantine followed by a COVID-19 test, after its president said he opposed the use of a vaccine passport.
In Africa, the African Union called for an urgent end to travel restrictions imposed on some of its member states, saying the measures effectively penalize governments for timely data sharing in line with international health regulations.
In Europe, EU health ministers discussed measures to try to halt the spread of the omicron variant, with the Netherlands calling for negative tests for incoming travellers from outside the bloc and France urging tests even for those arriving from EU states.
Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson faced a backlash on Wednesday after a video surfaced showing his staff laughing over how they would explain having held a Christmas gathering in Downing Street during a COVID lockdown last year when such festivities were banned.
A weekly epidemiological report published Tuesday by the WHO said that in the Middle East, the most cases reported last week were in:
- Jordan, with 32,108 reported cases.
- Iran, with 26,255 reported cases.
- Lebanon, with 10,406 reported cases.
In the Asia-Pacific region, South Korea will consider expanding home treatment of COVID-19 patients, as both new daily infections and severe cases hit record highs, putting hospital capacity under strain.
-From Reuters, The Associated Press and CBC News, last updated at 7:05 a.m. ET